'She was 11 and nicknamed Bean'

Published:May 6, 2008 by Brendan Wolfe

There are a couple pieces in this morning’s Washington Post on Mildred Loving, who died on Friday. Both emphasize her reticence, her refusal to place herself at the center of any cause, her desire, in the end, just to be left alone. As it turns out, it was that desire that got her mixed up with the law in the first place. Loving apparently didn’t realize that back in 1958 it was illegal for a black woman and a white man to wed in Virginia. She admits that her husband Richard might have understood. “I think he thought [if] we were married, they couldn’t bother us,” she said.

Life is never that simple, of course. When the couple returned from Washington, D.C., with rings and a license, someone called the police.

Caroline County Sheriff R. Garnett Brooks rousted them from their bed at 2 a.m. in July 1958 and told them the District’s marriage certificate was no good in Virginia. He took them to jail and charged them with unlawful cohabitation. They pleaded guilty, and Caroline County Circuit Court Judge Leon M. Bazile sentenced them to a year’s imprisonment, to be suspended if they left the state for the next 25 years.

“Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix,” Bazile ruled.

That’s how it was in Virginia fifty years ago. And it is tempting to even the scales by turning the Lovings’ marriage into a sort of epic love story, a love that conquered even the Supreme Court. It wasn’t like that, though.

She was 11 and nicknamed “Bean.” He was 17 and didn’t say much. They noticed one another in tiny Central Point, about an hour north of Richmond. There wasn’t much to it then, and there isn’t much to it now. But it was home, whites and blacks tended to mix more there than in other places in segregated Virginia, and the pair began to date.

She became pregnant at 17 or 18—the date is unclear in press recountings—and the pair, fearing social ignominy for an unmarried pregnant woman (yes, children, that used to be a social stigma, too), drove up to the District to get married. She would always say that she didn’t know they were being subversive; she only thought that Washington had less marital red tape.

Richard Loving died not even ten years after the famous Supreme Court decision, killed by a drunk driver. Mildred, meanwhile, was very poor and suffered from arthritis. Life isn’t always a fairy tale, the Post observes. Still, “it would be merciful if, in the quiet of their passing, two people who changed so much and asked for so little were able to find one another once more.”

IN ADDITION: Read the New York Times obituary here. Its byline belongs to Douglas Martin, one of the Times’ best writers (case in point).